Jackson Hlungwani (1923 - 2010)

The son of a Shangaan migrant worker, Jackson Mbhazima Hlungwani was born in Nkanyani Village, Gazankulu, in 1923. His father taught him how to carve household objects, sharpen tools and work with iron (Coates, 2010). He herded cattle as a child, and the time spent in the veld offered him the perfect opportunity to observe animals, birds and fish. At a young age, Hlungwani sought employment through migrant labour; he worked at an asbestos mine in Polokwane, and for a coffee and tea merchant in Johannesburg, but returned home after losing a finger in an industrial accident (Coates, 2010).

Hlungwani was ordained in the African Zionist Church in 1946, and later founded his own church at Bbhokota near Elim in the Northern Province, which he called ‘Yesu Galeliya One Aposto in Sayoni Alt and Omega’. From the 1960s, he built low stone wall structures at the site he called ‘New Jerusalem’, where he taught his followers and helped the sick. At this place of worship, on top of a hill near his home, Hlungwani placed his large wooden sculptures of animals, fish and characters from the bible, on and between the walls.

Lesley Spiro Cohen (1993) explains why Hlungwani began to dedicate himself to sculpture:

Hlungwani says that one night, in about 1978, the devil shot an arrow through his legs. He managed to shake off one of the arrows, but the other one stayed inside his leg. The next morning there were pus and blood-filled sores on his legs. He says he smelt like death and couldn’t stand it any more, so he decided to kill himself.

But before he could, Jesus appeared to him and said three things: he would be healed and would not die; he must serve God for his whole life; he would see God. He says Jesus also taught him how to heal with fire. Even today, he burns his own leg with fire, which he says eases the pain. Although he had been carving for many years, it was around this time that he began carving a great deal and produced many sculptures.

Hlungwani combines traditional elements from his Tsonga heritage with those of his Christian beliefs in his personalised spiritual philosophy. These ideas are also the source of the images and the inspiration for his sculptures. He only became widely known for his work when he was in his sixties, after the art collector Ricky Burnett arranged for his sculptures to be included in two major exhibitions in 1985 and 1989.

Hlungwani’s work was first exhibited in the “Tributaries” exhibition held in Johannesburg in 1985, after which he travelled to Germany and later Japan to show his sculptures. In 1989 his work was exhibited in “The Neglected Tradition”, a retrospective curated by Steven Sack, which was held in Newtown, Johannesburg, making Hlungwani a recognised name in the South African art scene. In 1995, his work was shown at the first Johannesburg Biennale.

Hlungwani’s subject matter ranges from spoons, sticks and bowls to altars, thrones and monumental fish, as well as other Christian-derived iconography such as Adam and Eve figures and lions. Burnett writes that Hlungwani’s work can be characterised by its range of scale: “from the minute and tender to the grand and monumental.” He describes his works as having a sense of “sculptural lyricism”; his “cubist volumes, [gouged] edges and improbable conjunctions and balances” are indicative of his unique creativity and “compulsive vision” (Burnett, 2010). His work in wood continues a long tradition of African sculpture, incorporating a fusion of Shangaan symbolism and Christian religious motifs throughout his oeuvre – often displaying a sense of humour, such as in the sculpture ‘Christ playing football’ (Coates, 2010).

Since 1995, an entire room in the Johannesburg Art Gallery has been dedicated to Hlungwani’s work, and in 2005 the Department of Arts and Culture declared him a “living legend” (Burnett, 2010). Today his work can be found in numerous commercial galleries and private collections both in South Africa and abroad.

Hlungwani passed away on January 20, 2010, after a brief illness, at his home in Mbhokota, near Elim, in Limpopo Province.


Barron, C. (2010). “Jackson Hlungwani: Sculptor who lived frugally” in Sunday Times, (January 30), < http://www.timeslive.co.za/sundaytimes/article283668.ece>

Burnett, R. (2010). “Art from the heart” in The Mail & Guardian, (February 5), http://www.mg.co.za/article/2010-02-05-art-from-the-heart

Coates, K. (2010). “Jackson Jekiseni Hlungwane”, in South African Art Times, February, 13.

Spiro Cohen, L. (1993). Jackson Hlungwani: A Resource Book, Johannesburg, 1-2

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